Continued thoughts on the potential cooperative game where you are forced to attack the other players...

It occurred to me that a great potential setting for a game like this could be a fantasy version of ancient Greece.  If I mashed together the gods and heroes from the mythical era with rival city states and Athenian-style democracy from the classical period, this could be a great starting point.
No wonder they are fighting, it looks really crowded in there.
Picture yoinked from wikimedia.org and is allegedly in the public domain.

The main thrust of the game is now that each player controls one of the city states and each turn you have to balance the will of the gods with the will of the people, and woe betide anyone who ignores them both.  Both of those demanding factions are fickle and capricious, so getting a random deal of cards (showing a demand from one or both of gods or people) each round should model that pretty well.  We can have a measure of divine anger and civil unrest for each player, and if those get too high, the game is lost, and those measures can also impact how other things work out.

I'm not yet sure how to win the game at this point.  It could simply be a matter of surviving a certain amount of time without the balance breaking down, but I think there needs to be more of an interesting finale to build towards.  I think this can be developed later -- knowing that the basic play of the game works is probably more important -- but I need to keep it in mind and come up with something before too long, even if that changes later.

Of course, this could all be so much easier if it was a competitive game, but that is not the challenge, and would probably end up with something rather more vanilla.

I want this game to have a board, rather than being just a card game, largely so we can see armies moving around on a map.  This might just get abstracted to a circle where you attack and defend left and right.  In fact that is probably enough for a first iteration, and if more scope for manoeuvre is found to be required, then so be it.  So that means that some of the actions available will boil down to deploying troops either to your left or your right, and using them to attack or defend.  Part of  the game would therefore end up being to fight battles and win glory, but not being too effective at it.

That would make for quite a dull game, so there needs to be more going on out there.  Building temples to the gods would probably be good. Something to do with games (of the Olympic variety), maybe.  Also economic elements, including production of goods domestically and trade, both with the other players and with off-board non-player powers.  To get with the mythical element, doing things like launching a thousand ships to attack Troy would be cool too.

As I write, I am starting to put together a very basic prototype to try the principles out, using a few of the ideas I have mentioned above.  Next time I write on this subject, I will relate how that went.

Before that happens, though, I am feeling a bit of a 24 hour challenge buzz...


Cooperating With Your Enemies

So I was having a discussion on Facebook, which started about whether there are any cooperative boardgames that are best with, or specifically designed for, three players.  This quickly developed into a bit of a design brainstorm about a possible game that could fit that bill given that people were suggesting games that were good with three, but nobody seemed to find one that was best with that count.   Huge thanks to Tim Cox and Koen Hendrix for throwing around some really interesting ideas and making this into a really fun evening's diversion.

One of the participants suggested Dune as a setting, and this got me thinking about how to create a true cooperative game, with no traitor mechanic or anything like that, but based in a universe where everyone is trying all manner of underhand tricks, including, but not limited to, assassination and nukes.  Once we got that far, I had fallen down a rabbit hole and I found there were ideas bouncing around that wouldn't let go.
A dune. Not sure those guys have properly set up stillsuits.
Pic yoinked from pexels.com

I don't feel inclined to create a game that relies heavily on an IP, but I'll use Dune as an example for what I am thinking about right now...  (I'll confess here that it is a long time since I have read any of the Dune books -- and I did lose the will to live before getting through the entire series -- so my thoughts here are based mostly on incomplete memories of the first book and subsequent screen adaptations.)

So, regardless of player number (it would be nice to hit that magical three, but this discussion is on to something else now), there needs to be a common goal which, if achieved, means that everyone wins.  In Dune terms, let's say that there needs to be a spice harvest to bring in enough spice, and at that point no single house must be in control of Arrakis. We will basically assume that, for the overall good of everyone, a stand-off is what is most desirable, even if the noble members of the various houses don't actually see it that way.

There also needs to be ways to lose.  As a first pass, lets say that if any house gets all their influence completely removed from Arrakis, that sufficiently destabilises things to end the game, as does one house becoming sufficiently powerful.

So if everyone wants stability to be maintained, surely that is easy.  And isn't it unthematic to think that there is any possible universe where a Harkonnen won't stick a knife into an Atreides back given a reasonable opportunity?

Yes, true.  So we will force this.

My thinking at the moment is that each round, every player is forced to make at least one move that is nasty and obnoxious and would work against the interests of maintaining a balance.  You know, I invest in this city, harvest some spice, negotiate with the Guild, and assassinate one of your leaders; yeah, sorry, I didn't have much choice there.

How can we make that happen? Well, maybe the game is card driven and you need to play all the cards in your hand each round.  Each card has a nice, positive effect that nudges the game towards victory, and also something unpleasant that screws everyone in general but one player in particular; then you have to decide which of your cards (or maybe more than one) you play for its bad effect.  So there may be some effects that are absolutely essential to provide any chance of winning, but that means that you have to deploy the house atomics against the last player who looked at you funny.

Combine that with some external challenges that need to be overcome and we may have a game here.  I'm on it and will see if I can get a basic prototype playable soon -- though I probably won't be using the Dune setting.  I have an idea for an alternate setting, which then suggests a load of developments.  I'll start building that and will post about it really soon.

To be continued...


Building Monuments but Getting Off at Victoria

Yesterday I took another trip into London for a playtesting session.  So, that's three trips into the capital so far this year, which is more than I usually do in any given 12-month period.

Anyway, this time around I took my current version of the inappropriately-named Explore and Settle, for which I managed to recruit three testers, and I joined in for a four-player game.  At this point, the game is still in a very early stage of development, having had little testing beforehand, so the aim was really to see how the game flows and whether there is something there that could be built on.  I admit to being nervous with such an unready game, but previous experience told me that this was one of the friendliest and most helpful places I could be, so I had confidence that this would be productive.

And it was.
Just a few turns in and the map is developing nicely.

We identified a number of problems, including:

  • After the first few turns, supply of gold vastly outstripped the need for it, so we ended up running out of coins and besides people got to the point where they just didn't bother taking their income. 
  • Resource supply got a little fiddly with trying to remember which spaces had been used for supply each turn.  
  • The end-game was ill-defined, and benefits for building monuments (in terms of victory points and other benefits) just didn't seem right. Plus the game felt like it needed some form of "hidden" victory points to give some uncertainty at the end.
For all of these we discussed possible solutions, so I now have tweaks that address these issues and may help overall, so I know what to do next.

Finding problems -- especially when accompanied by plausible solutions -- is definitely a benefit for me, but there were also some things that were simply straight positives, including:
  • The flow of the game was good, with not too much downtime for players between their turns.
  • The testers all game thumbs up for the general idea and style of the game.
  • The map grew in a pleasing manner.
  • The cards comprising a square and a resource tab was considered something that was sufficiently new and interesting.  (I wouldn't be surprised if I later find someone else has done something very similar, but it felt reasonably fresh to this table of players.)
  • The game took about an hour to play, which I think is a good target time, so I will be aiming for maintaining that game length.
Of course, I wasn't only playing my own games, and this time got to try out two other prototypes.  One was an auction game with partial information about the value of lots and some interesting risk/reward decisions for the auctioneer.  The other was about aliens trying to abduct sheep from fields while being shot at by angry farmers with shotguns. What's not to like?!

Once again, these meetings are proving to be a great inspiration. Aside from the fun of playing other people's games and getting feedback on my designs, just getting to spend time with and talk with other designers is really encouraging and helps me to keep going when my drive is flagging.  It's worth going from time to time just for that.


Wyvern Charming: the First Attempt

UK Games Expo is coming up at the beginning of June, and I am planning to attend from Friday to Sunday, which will give me more opportunity to participate more fully than I have in the past.  I am planning to join in the public playtest sessions again, but this year I am hoping to go another step further.

One of the events taking place over the weekend is the Wyvern's Lair, which is inspired by the TV show Dragon's Den.  The idea here is that there will be a panel of representatives of assorted game publishing companies and game designers get the opportunity to make a pitch to these people.  This isn't really about getting someone to invest in or publish a game (though that is a possibility) but more about making contacts and having the opportunity to talk to people and, hopefully, get some advice and guidance from them.

I spent quite a while agonising over this.  Boogie Knights is clearly the game that I have progressed the furthest and is closest to being publishable (other than the tiny I Know An Old Woman), but I don't feel it is really ready to pitch to a publisher.  However, the blurb on the UKGE website suggests to me that "completed" games are not really necessary, so why not give it a go?

Of course, it's not quite as easy as putting your name down.  One does not simply walk into the Wyvern's Lair.  Well, maybe one does, but first I need to submit a written pitch of no more than 100 words plus a single image.  It turns out that getting the essence of a game down to 100 words in such a way that it makes someone want to know more is quite tricky.

I have read in blogs and heard on podcasts all sorts of advice about pitching games, but one of the key aspects I remember is that a lot of designers make the mistake of focusing on the mechanics of their game and how unique they are, rather than emphasising  the overall experience and "feel" of the game.  So I drafted up a few sentences along those lines along with a short bullet list of features (play time, number of players, components) and slapped them together with a picture.

The picture took some thinking.  At short notice I figured I had three main options:

  1. Use a picture I had taken at a recent playtest, which would feature the not-quite-latest black and white art.
  2. Mock up a picture on the computer using the latest art.
  3. Print out a copy of the game with new art and stage a game to photograph.
I decided to go with the first option as I figure it gives some impression of how the game works, and I quite like the slightly scruffy table and the hands waving around in view.  

A couple of friends had offered to look at what I was doing, and they provided some really helpful feedback and suggestions.  I'm not really much good at salesmanship, so coming up with a short and punchy bit of text doesn't come easily to me.  These guys helped me trim out some superfluous words and focus on the guts of the message, making the pitch a whole load better, I think.  The end result isn't far off the back of a game box, which seems like a good place to be.

Lesson learnt: don't be afraid to ask for help.

Anyway, I've now submitted my initial pitch and have nothing to do for the moment but wait.  I have no idea how many people are applying for a place or how many spaces are available, so how good my chances are of being selected are anybody's guess.  But it has been a worthwhile experience and I feel I have now found a reasonable "elevator pitch" for Boogie Knights, and I think that is a big help in itself.
The back of the BK box? Not quite, but it is at least something...


Monumental exploration

You know I was talking about my Explore and Settle prototype and how it needed some sort of a spark?  Well, I think I have got somewhere on that front.

First I will step back and outline the game as it stands.  The main flow is that on your turn you draw a card, which is dominated by a terrain type, and you add it to the table to extend a growing map; you may then add a settlement to that location, move a settlement (people migrate sometimes), and use resources to develop cities and resource production locations like mines and farms.  You get resources to develop or build things by being able to trace a line of supply (of limited length) to locations producing those resources, and you pay other players if you need to transport goods through areas where they have a settlement but you do not.  Resources are produced according an icon on the end of each terrain card, but this can be covered over by other cards, after which the card only keeps producing if someone has added a production location to it.  Cities (which mostly provide gold) and production locations are not owned by any player, but can be accessed by anyone with a settlement marker in the same place.

The intent was that one of the things players can build is a monument, and these are the things that provide victory points. I had originally envisaged earning the most points for building monuments that stand at the edge of the map at the end of the game, so they mark the borders of the kingdom, as it were.
I figure players would be building things like this. Maybe giant statues and stuff too.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0
This is all well and good, and the basic mechanisms seem to work, but they don't really drive the game forwards and they don't yet provide that spark of excitement that is needed to make a game more than just a collection of rules.  To get through this, I think I need to figure out what the focus of the game is, and in this case, I think it is probably actually the building of monuments.  So I need to actually make people want to build those monuments and give them an appropriate boost when they do.

What I am working on now is that on completion of a monument, you get a special reward which includes victory points, but also some extra ability; maybe you can now transport resources further, build certain things cheaper, avoid paying for certain things, or gain an extra settlement marker to place.  Thematically, this would probably be a boon offered by the king to acknowledge your services to His Magnificence.  Probably these boons would be available on cards, and when you build your monument, you can claim one of the small selection on display.

(Of course, with this focus, my working title is looking more dodgy than ever, but it doesn't really matter at this stage.)

Balancing the boons will be a challenge, but that can come later. First test the concept.  And that's what I'm doing right now...


Settling on More Exploration

My game development time got sidetracked a little over the last week as I, for some reason best known to my subconscious, decided to put together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle for the first time in my life.  I think that is out of my system now, and I have ticked off an item in what might be the world's most boring bucket list.  So now I can get back to something a bit more creative...

Having posted about how I put together prototype cards using nanDECK, I printed and cut out a set of cards for Explore and Settle (that name really must change!), comprising 9 sea cards and 27 other terrains, and I sleeved these in different coloured sleeves.  As an aside, I usually put my cards into opaque backed sleeves, which keep everything neat when my cutting is a bit on the rough side, and add enough stiffness to standard 160gsm cardstock to make adequate playing cards.  Anyway, I also made a sheet of counters representing each of the resource types, which could be used as resource production locations; the idea is that when the resource tab on a card gets covered, it stops producing unless one of these production tokens has been placed on the location.
Seems quite strong to control a row like blue is doing there.

I'm rambling.  A few wooden components and cardboard coins from the stuff box makes this pile of stuff into a playable prototype.

So far I have done some solo testing of the game, and it seems to basically work, but I'm struggling on my own to make half decent moves to see how things go, and I don't know yet if other people will find my resource rules too fiddly; you don't actually gather resources, but have to set up (or pay for) supply lines of sorts.  The game also doesn't yet have a real "spark" to get it going, but I have a couple of ideas to go with which I may talk about in another post.  I really need to try this with actual real people again.

Fortunately there is another London Sunday playtest session coming up, so I'm planning on taking whatever I have of this game and seeing what feedback I can get, which should help me in the right direction.